The Mustard Man

Food, Odd Collections, People
on July 16, 2000

The Mount Horeb Mustard Museum offers sauces, chutneys, and marmalades in addition to mustard, but ketchup and mayonnaise are nowhere in sight. Curator Barry Levenson dubs these the lesser condiments.

If necessary, we offer confidential counseling for those who need to correct their condiment behavior, quips Levenson, the zany owner of the museum in downtown Mount Horeb, Wis., (pop. 4,699).

Levenson, 51, may have the largest mustard collection on Earth, with 3,401 varieties from places around the worldfrom Ballinderry, Ireland; Ichinomiya, Japan; São Paulo, Brazil; and Velograd, Russia, to name a few. As to which mustard is best, Levenson says its a matter of tasteand visitors can taste any of the 400 brands he sells.

Levensons mustard obsession began in 1986 when his beloved Boston Red Sox lost the World Series. He was an assistant attorney general for the state of Wisconsin at the time, but once lived in Massachusetts near Fenway Park, so the loss caused Levenson great distress. In a funk, he wandered into a Madison grocery store and claims the mustards caught his attention, telling him, If you collect us, they will come.

Levenson confesses that a mild case of midlife crisis was erupting, but he couldnt resist the challenge. Clinically speaking, he agrees that hes probably a little crazy, and hes not getting rich, but people in the industry say Levenson is great for business.

After all, admits Dave Latter, chairman of Morehouse Mustard in Industry, Calif., if you cant have fun selling mustard, youd better quit.

Indeed, Levenson has fun. He spends most of his time tasting, promoting, lecturing on, and writing about mustard. For those less committed, an easy way to indulge is with pretzels. You just dip, dunk, and dine, Levenson says. He also recommends mustard with cheese, risotto, fish, or baked potatoes. Layer it on with abandon: mustard is almost devoid of fat and calories.

Conversation with Levenson can require a referee to sort fact from tease. He says with a straight face that hes uncovered secret war files revealing that scientists worked on a weapon of mass immobilization called mayonnaise gas. Victims became limp and indescribably boring.

With only the imagination to curb ingredients and food combinations, the Mustard Museum has a good future, but Levenson hasnt completely abandoned law. Hes busy writing Habeas Codfish, a book investigating food-law issues. He plans to look at questions like whether a restaurant can sue over a bad food review, or if a cook can be taken to court for serving an omelet considered too spicy (an actual case in New Hampshire). His other goal? Collecting his 4,000th mustard variety.

For its part, the mustard industry knows a good thing when it sees it.

Theres nothing better than laughing and having a good time, says Case Fischer, CEO of Fischer & Weiser Specialty Foods in Fredricksburg, Texas. But Levenson is also moving mustard forward strategicallyhumor makes you remember.